Why Did It Take Chris Rock So Long to Make a Great Movie Like ‘Top Five’?

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The moment he dropped his 1996 breakthrough stand-up special Bring the Pain, Chris Rock was dubbed the heir apparent of Richard Pryor, one of the few comics on the scene to approach the king’s potent mixture of social commentary, personal confession, and performative brilliance. But that wasn’t all they had in common; Pryor spent most of his film career failing to find a vehicle that captured his unique gifts, and Rock has experienced much of the same struggle. “Richard Pryor has two good movies out of 30 or 40,” Rock told Rolling Stone. “Rodney Dangerfield had one. So it’s easy to look at history and go, ‘Maybe I’m not going to get one’… But I guess you’ve got to make your own history.” And Rock has done just that with his new film Top Five, writing, directing, and starring in a picture that plays like a cross between Stardust Memories, Funny People, and Before Sunset, but refracted through the prism of Rock’s distinctive comic sensibility. So why did it take him so long to make a movie worthy of his talent?

It’s not that his previous filmography is a trail of turkeys. His brief bit in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and supporting turn in New Jack City were key components in his early stardom. He’s decent in secondary turns in Nurse Betty and Dogma. And his appearances in such Adam Sandler dreck as The Longest Yard and the Grown-Ups films aren’t really his fault, aside from the crime of agreeing to them (but everybody’s got bills to pay). What separates Rock from Pryor is the degree of control he’s had over his projects since all the way back in 2001, when he co-wrote and co-executive produced the Heaven Can Wait remake Down to Earth. After that, he co-wrote and directed two more features, the can-you-imagine-a-black-president farce Head of State and the Love in the Afternoon remake I Think I Love My Wife. None were outright terrible. But none could even touch — in comedy or in truth — the worst five minutes of his stand-up act.

In a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable, Rock said (presumably of I Think I Love My Wife), “I did a movie that wasn’t that good awhile back that I directed, and I remember Alexander Payne talked to me and goes, ‘I watch you do stand-up, you can get away with anything. And I watch your movies and you’re so safe. What are you doing?’ And I took that note into this movie.”

“This movie” is Top Five, which Rock wrote, significantly enough, while on location for Sandler’s execrable Grown-Ups 2. Rock plays Andre Allen, a stand-up-comic-turned-movie-star on the verge of a very big weekend: he’s about to get married (on television, to a reality-show star), and his new movie, a dead-serious dramatization of the Haitian slave revolution called Uprize, is about to open. Its fate is important to him since, after kicking a dangerous booze habit, he’s afraid he’s lost his gift. “I don’t feel like doing funny movies anymore,” he says, recalling Stardust’s Sandy Bates. “I don’t feel funny anymore.”

His high-pressure day is spent with Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter penning an in-depth profile. She trails him to his tuxedo fitting, his press junket, and to pick up the rings; he takes her back to his old neighborhood. And along the way, they talk — and talk and talk and talk, creating a dynamic reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before movies (and that series’ star Julie Delpy’s 2 Days In… movies, the second of which co-starred Rock), sharing with those films the pleasure of just listening to smart, witty people batting it back and forth. (It’s also a welcome showcase for the considerable charms of Ms. Dawson, one of the industry’s most perpetually underused and undervalued actors.)

Rock has stated that he wrote most of the roles for the people who played them, and you can tell — this is a guy who loves his fellow comics and wants to give them a chance to shine, and much of the picture has a loose, warm, show-me-whatcha-got vibe. His direction is miles more confident; he’s creating moods instead of framing jokes, tinkering with structure gingerly and playfully, using his score and music cues (coordinated, of course, by Questlove) as emphasis but not as a crutch. Sure, it’s got some issues — Rock’s views on what drives women remain problematic, and it’s one more entry in this year’s trend of oddly childish attacks on critics (OK, I’m a little more sensitive to those than most viewers). But it all adds up to easily Rock’s finest film to date, and one of the year’s smartest and funniest comedies.

So how did he get this one right, after so many years of getting it rather wrong? Because, like Pryor, he’s never had the opportunity to play a character as interesting as he is — and so, by playing a rough approximation of himself, he can get closer to the truth he puts across so freely onstage. For the first time, he’s not trying to stuff his gonzo energy into the ill-fitting box of a “normal” person in a conventional comedy; we didn’t want to see Rock doing the lame white-people-dance-funny bits of Head of State or the even lamer Viagra gags of I Think I Love My Wife. In Top Five, he finds a cinematic approximation of his act: free-flowing, unpredictable, personal, spiced up with pop cultural references, political shout-outs, and a decidedly hip-hop energy, and above all else, funny as hell.

Top Five is out Friday.